Abhisit’s Farewell

Former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has been gracious in defeat. Will he make a comeback?

Mong Palatino

In his televised farewell speech on August, former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva summarized the key achievements of his administration which, according to him, could help newly proclaimed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in building a more stable and progressive Thailand. But Abhisit also indirectly admitted his shortcomings when he outlined the immediate challenges that his successor should address.

It’s to Abhisit’s credit that the feared post-election violence didn’t materialize in a deeply divided society like Thailand, largely because of his gracious acceptance of defeat in last month’s general elections. He may have his share of faults as a leader, but at least he was successful in overseeing an orderly transition of power that turned out to be his last great act as a statesman. Also, the peaceful turnover could prove immensely helpful in stabilizing Thai politics by restoring public confidence in the electoral process and democratic institutions.

It’s quite interesting that Abhisit chose to highlight in his speech what he called the ‘stable and sound financial standing’ of Thailand because the rising economic difficulties experienced by ordinary Thais was actually one of the reasons cited by analysts for his poll defeat. In fact, Yingluck garnered popular support during the campaign period when she promised to double the country’s minimum wage. But Abhisit seemed firm in setting the record straight about the correctness and effectiveness of his economic policies.

He proudly reported that: ‘When I first came into office, I used to say that our economic situation was like a "house on fire". Now, we have put out this fire, made progress in looking after people living in the house and also made our house stronger.’

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To bolster his claims, he cited the country’s foreign reserves, which are now the 13th largest in the world, the reduced debt-to-GDP ratio, the low unemployment rate, and the stable Oil Fund that protects consumers from fluctuating oil prices.

Abhisit acknowledged his failure to provide a comprehensive social welfare system, but he explained that his government originally planned to complete the programme in 2016. He also said the disparities in Thai society were a structural problem. He emphasized, though, that social assistance is now being implemented through the offering of free education and free healthcare for the poor and the provision of care for the disabled and the elderly.

On the other hand, Abhisit was candid enough to mention some of the problems he will pass to his successor, like the strained relations with Cambodia over a border dispute, the continuing violence and insurgency in Southern Thailand and bitter political conflicts that need to be resolved through judicial processes. He particularly advised new members of parliament to help tackle the drug menace.

Abhisit’s speech was brief, but it amply summed up his successes and failures as a leader, including his unfulfilled dreams for Thailand. It was also noteworthy for the issues that Abhisit refused to mention, like the violent protest crackdown last year, attack on media freedom and other civil liberties, and corruption in the bureaucracy.

Abhisit is now a private citizen, but we shouldn’t disregard the prospect of a political comeback – especially since he was recently re-elected as leader of the Democrat Party.